Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tree Rustling as a Contemporary Phenomenon -- and Possibly a Distinct Crime

This story tells of the growing problem of hardwood tree theft in North America. Apparently the value of such wood has increased enormously on international markets, including those in China and Europe. Journalist Susan Saulny characterizes the phenomenon as "scattered and intimate, and often affect[ing] homeowners, parks and public forests."

While the tree theft is reported here as both an urban (in Flint, Michigan, black walnuts were stolen from along a main city street) and rural phenomenon (Vermont, Kentucky and Arkansas are among the states affected), the story spoke to the rural-ite in me. One New England land owner, for example, lost 30 maple trees to a neighbor's saw. Saulny writes of George Spaulding, 78, who "loves the trees the way only someone who grew up with them could. But beyond that, he counts on the syrup sales to supplement the family income, which comes mainly from the twice-a-day milking of three dozen cows." The attachment to trees struck me as part of the attachment to place that no doubt keeps Spaulding and his wife Agnes on their farm near Royalton. It reminded me of the emotional distress my family felt when my grandfather sold the virgin timber on our family homestead in Arkansas. His doing so seemed a betrayal of the family and, indeed, of the land. It felt like a small step away from selling the land itself, which had been in our family since shortly after the Civil War.

There's a legal story here, too. The Appalachian Roundtable provides resources and legal help to victims of tree theft. Dea Riley of that organization is quoted as saying,“[i]t’s getting so much worse that I’d say in every county in Kentucky we have timber theft issues .... So many more people are showing up to say, ‘Hey, my timber got stolen.’ The phone just hasn’t stopped ringing. We have a waiting list of victims that we won’t get to in a year.” She goes on to note that most of these rural residents don't have the resources to fight for themselves, even though these represent "huge losses to the landowner." Riley sees socioeconomic causes behind the tree rustling. Like others in Kentucky and elsewhere, her organization is working for stiffer penalties.

But reliable data on the phenomenon are hard to come by because it is often reported along with other property crime. Albert Goetzl, a forest economist studying the phenomenon, is uncertain that the problem is greater now than it has been in the past. He seems to dismiss it, saying "it's more of a local nuisance than anything."

Local nuisance, indeed.

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